With a “publication structure” credited to Will Holder, The Social Life of the Book describes itself as “a monthly, subscription based series of original texts by writers, artists, publishers, designers, booksellers, etc., reflecting on reading, designing, publishing, and distributing books, today.” It is edited by castillo/corrales in Paris, and published through its Paraguay Press, Imprint.
The series begins with “Making Books”, an essay by Oscar Tuazon, a founding member of the gallery. Tuazon begins and ends his short text with accounts of book making: his parents bookbindery, principally producing blank books such as photo albums and sketchbooks; his own use of traditional bookmaking skills to produce his two artist books, Dwelling Portably, and Leave Me Be.
Tuazon elegantly describes these experiences, but it is the model of the book and distribution that he unfolds from them that is where the pamphlet becomes provocative. His particular views emerge when discussing the blank books of his parents and how they were often used for private journal keeping. Noting “a completely onanistic model of production and distribution: write a book yourself, for yourself”, Tuazon goes on to sympathetically notice:
A book for an audience of one. A blank book is an anti-book. And it is this aspect that I actually find most interesting, the idea of producing a book not as a form of distribution or communication, but as an object. (6)
Tuazon goes on to explore various ways in which the book is a failure in 2011, unable to justify if you are looking for discussion or communication. Tuazon balances this against his involvement in publication projects like The Social Life of the Book and Section 7 bookshop in Paris. Such spaces, he declares, function like commercial galleries, purveyors of rarified objects in that:
I don’t have many illusions about the bookshop as a place for discussion or debate, as a public space. It is a curated space… for a tiny, sophisticated public with extra money to spend on rare beautifully-crafted objects. (7)
I agree about the first this sentence, but I think there are other ways of responding than this quote’s conclusion…
Tuazon’s notions of the book are usefully read as contemporary responses to two legacies of post-1960s art practices. One is the alignment of writing and sculpture, as practiced, for example, by Lawrence Weiner and Robert Smithson. Curiously, if that was about democratising the art work, through low price books and art work in magazines, Tuazon seems to share an urgency focussed upon printed matter, whilst moving – in economic and distribution terms – in the opposite direction.
This is partly due to his rejection of both writing and reading: “The craft of writing does not interest me.” (9) Tuazon says, also telling us he has recently finished writing a novel. Here, too, Tuazon enters into an historical debate where the artist relates to writing and the book by denying or destroying its function as distributed/ readable object (think, most famously, of Marcel Broodthaers and John Latham).
Again key differences unfold in his/our contemporary moment. The repudiation of book as reading-writing object remains as some kind of rite of passage, but the object is not destroyed or literally digested, except in terms of distribution and through a heightened focus on the books sculptural properties. Some of Tuazon’s own comments are useful here (note how repudiating writing requires a carefully, crafted, refined prose style):
I consider the process of making a book – even writing it – like making a sculpture: I consider how it can or can’t be used, how it relates to an idea of function, what it looks like and how it feels, most of all how it gets built. And above all, making a book (like making a sculpture) is always a way of answering the question of why to make a book. Reanimating the corpse. (9)
Talking of poetry books his parents sometimes made for private clients:
This was a kind of ideal book, a book out of circulation, a useless object like a painting is useless. Painting started to get really interesting at about the time photography came along: when it was finally stripped of the last shreds of function, of any possibility of serving a public purpose, of communicating anything. Then it finally had to stand on its own, autonomous and abject, just a thing. Those volumes of poetry, unread and beautiful, narcissistic and perverse, onanistic, queer- that’s what a book wants to be. Autonomous and indifferent, an abstract book. (10)
There is an element of A Modest Proposal, or, more accurately, a desire to inhabit the perversity and paradox of this position. Of his own novel writing, for example, Tuazon comments how “The book itself needed to be invisible.” Likewise, when conceiving of a book version of Dwelling Portably, a survivalist newsletter published out of the Oregon woods by Burt and Holly Davis, and asked by its authors to make a book as lightweight and portable as possible, Tuazon instead re-publishes them as a “thick tome of a book, a bible, bound in black goatskin. It becomes funereal, finite, a kind of austere memorial to a hardcore lifestyle, somehow impenetrable… taken out of circulation.” (13)
Tuazon proposes such contradictions are how a contemporary practice of the book is achieved. Tuazon’s views on death-book and anti-book give a contemporary relevance to forms of book production that would lack that status otherwise, countering a history of artists publications unfolding out of the mimeo revolution, and inserting such styles into the discourses and markets of Tuazon’s art work and that of the castillo/ corrales gallery.
This highlights a number of tensions applying both to MAKING BOOKS and the whole field of art(ist)-led printed matter:
(1)Such an argument seeks to remove both reading and writing from the discourse of book making, and perhaps the book becomes a way of talking about graphic design and sculpture rather than writing.
(2)This position risks celebrating its failure to see publication as in anyway related to creating a public (for an alternative view see Mathew Stadtler’s talk here, from which this formulation is derived).
(3)The interest in a carefully curated space becomes a notion that the only option for printed matter is books costing upwards of 25 euros (or 5 euros for a 14 page essay, as here), and creating a culture where it feels wrong to questions such decisions about exclusive cost and distribution….
(4)I (want to) feel such texts always want a utopia by the back door, merely by the virtue of engaging in such activity. If that hope/ delusion is not present, the artist shifts from being an agent of gentrification to producing a gentrified version of the artist…
If Making Books effectively raises these issues, it leaves me uncertain about its precise position. There is also Making Books as I experience and encounter it, through a recent visit to Section 7 books in Paris, emerging with saddle stitched chapbook, ideal for transmission through gift and exchange, read in five minutes, acquiring form in conversation and in texts like this…
Section 7 was a welcoming place. We were given coffee and had a good conversation with the director about books and projects. They had some books I had been looking for for a long time, which I brought not as beautiful, luxury objects but because their contents fitted into work I am making/ thinking/ experiencing, its histories and consequences…
I’m thinking through how such desires relate to the arguments of Tuazon’s provocative text, how both positions entwine in contradiction and reciprocity through particular notions of materials and communication…
The next installment of The Social Life of the Book will be The Wet and The Dry by Moyra Davey. The colophon notes: “The series will be hand-bound annually, into a 192-page volume, whose edition is determined by demand. This currently stands at 15.” More information and orders here.
The book I found at Section 7 was the issue of the Swedish journal OEI (no 51 2010,) dedicated to Mary Ellen Solt, edited by Antonio Sergio Bessa. The book brings back into circulation Holt’s poetry and essays in a move that both gives provisional form to her own life work and opens up new materials/ ways of thinking about concrete poetry, particularly its lineage out of William Carlos Williams project of The American Idiom.